- Associated Press - Saturday, October 21, 2017

MINOT, N.D. (AP) - When Caleb’s Clubhouse executive director Shannon Schmidt’s oldest son, Caleb, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of 2 1/2, she and her husband wanted to do their very best for him.

The couple took Caleb to medical professionals in the Twin Cities for treatment of different issues and Schmidt toured inclusion programs there, programs that provided effective educational programming for kids with autism and other special needs alongside their typically developing peers.

Autism spectrum disorders affect many children and early intervention is important for helping them to develop to their full potential. While the area has educational programs for kids with autism, there were no preschool programs exactly like the ones she saw in Minnesota that grouped kids with different disabilities alongside their typically developing peers.

At first, Schmidt said she was ready to pack up the family and move to the Twin Cities so Caleb could go to one of those facilities. That wasn’t a realistic option, since her husband has his business in the Minot community and their support system was here.

So Schmidt decided to bring the programming she wanted for her son to Minot.

She told the Minot Daily News that it took lots of research, grant writing, and planning before Caleb’s Clubhouse - named for her son - was ready to launch this fall.

The program seems to have paid off in a big way.

There are six different preschool classes for children ages 3-5 and an afterschool program for kids in grades K-12. There is also a Mommy and Me class for caregivers and their young children and classes for siblings of children with special needs which lets kids talk about their positive and negative experiences with their siblings.

Schmidt said the programming is for kids of all ability levels, those with disabilities and those without. It focuses on individualized learning according to each child’s strengths.

One day in October, the preschool and after school program was filled with the shrieks and squeals of delighted children. Two children twirled on a swing suspended from the ceiling. “Spider Man, Spider Man, Spider Man!” chanted a little boy, pretending to be the wall-climbing super hero. Schmidt said earlier that kids seem to be more motivated to learn if their teachers tie a new skill into one of their passions, such as the Spider Man or the Transformers movies.

Another boy prepared to go down a bumpy slide. The sensory gymnasium is loads of fun for high energy preschoolers, but Schmidt said it also helps kids who might have sensory processing disorders to learn to manage different physical sensations like swinging, spinning and climbing.

Other stations in the school are dedicated to other typical preschool activities, like reading readiness and art. There is also a dark, enclosed, quiet area where kids who have been overstimulated can go to decompress, sitting with a staff member in a soothing space.

The teachers at the center have a wealth of experience in early childhood and special education.

Director Kelsey Kittelson and Schmidt said children are also learning how to recognize their own need for a break from stimulation. As older children and adults, they will be better able to advocate themselves and more independent.

She said her daughter, who is a typically developing child, also enjoys attending preschool there. Kids without disabilities learn alongside kids with special needs and learn that everyone is special and everyone is a little bit different in their own way, said Schmidt and Kittelson. Schmidt said she thinks the kids are more compassionate and are more accepting of those differences.

Children in the preschool programs also practice typical preschool skills such as learning how to stand in line, practicing taking turns and getting along with their playmates. They address learning using a multisensory approach. To learn the letters of the alphabet, the preschoolers practice “Zoophonics,” first saying the letter out loud, then doing the sound that it makes and then making a motion with their hands.

About half the children attending Caleb’s Clubhouse are from low income families. Some have been referred by doctors and therapists; other parents sought out the preschool because they wanted their children to attend an inclusive program.

Schmidt said Caleb, 6, loves participating in the programming at the center, as do the other kids. Some would like to stay there and even sleep there if they could.

“They have a lot of fun and they have a hard time leaving,” said Schmidt.


Information from: Minot Daily News, https://www.minotdailynews.com

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